The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement hosted a hearing Tuesday afternoon to debate H.R.704, the SAFE for America Act, which would end the Visa Lottery Program. The Congressmen in attendance were Elton Gallegly (Subcommittee Chairman) of California, Zoe Lofgren (Subcommittee Ranking Member) of California, John Conyers (Committee Ranking Member) of Michigan, and Pedro Pierluisi the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico.
The witnesses were Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia as the sponsor of H.R.704 and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Janice Kephart with the National Security Policy Center for Immigration Studies, Stephen Edson who was formally with the State Department’s visa services unit, and Ambassador Johnny Young with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Despite the promise and potential for this hearing to be a lively debate with an in-depth discussion on where each side draws the line between security and immigration and sets their priorities, the hearing was postponed over an hour thanks to votes on the House floor and a “suspicious package” found in the basement of one of the House office buildings.
Furthermore, Rep. Ted Poe of Texas, one of the Immigration Subcommittee’s best voices, was offered time by the Republican leadership to speak on the floor for an hour about border security. Mr. Poe made a great speech and had an impressive discussion with other Members of Congress, but his time on the House floor prevented him and a few other Members from attending the hearing. It was a great opportunity for him to discuss our border security problems and we’re all grateful for his efforts, but it would have been nice to have a better attended hearing on one of our top priorities: ending the Visa Lottery Program.
Members of Congress just can’t be in two places at once. Unfortunately, the sparsely attended event with only one Republican and three Democrats yielded a short hearing that lasted less than an hour. However, the limited time frame should not take away from the hearing’s importance.
Chairman Gallegly opened the hearing, after apologizing for the late start, by diving right into the issue. He presented background on the issue since its inception in 1990, but then said the Diversity Visa Program (also known as the Visa Lottery) was rife with fraud and that even the State Department acknowledged the high level of deception. Mr. Gallegly mentioned that terrorists have already used the Visa Lottery to enter the United States and that immigration policy should be “something more than the luck of the draw.” Furthermore, he indicated that he was a proud cosponsor of Rep. Goodlatte’s bill (H.R.704) to end the Visa Lottery Program and would continue to advocate for its passage. The Chairman had a surprisingly powerful opening statement indicative of his passion and resolve to finally pass legislation ending the Visa Lottery Program.
Ranking Member Lofgren rebutted Chairman Gallegly’s statement by focusing on the relative impact of the program. She said only 4.8% of LPRs were admitted through this program, emphasizing that it was a small program and of little importance compared to other immigration issues. She then shifted the debate from security to diversity. She said “Diversity Visas” are carefully screened, “just like any other visa,” and then stressed that the program was designed to “grow and sustain a diverse nation.” She continued by saying that “Diversity Visa” winners were more likely to hold managerial type jobs than those entering under family reunification or traditional worker visas. She was trying to make a point that Visa Lottery winners added something to our country outside of simple diversity. However, her statistic was very niche and of little impact on the underlying debate except for the American worker who didn’t win a management job because of having to compete against one of these managerial type lottery winners. She then expressed opposition to the bill and stressed that she would continue to oppose the bill regardless of the hearing. She said it does not create “fairness” and just eliminates opportunity.
Committee Ranking Member John Conyers used his opening statement to express opposition to H.R.704 and support Mrs. Lofgren’s statement. He said, “I like Mr. Goodlatte, but I don’t like his bill.” He then said the real question about the hearing should be whether or not the United States wants to have another way for people who don’t qualify under the regular immigration system to enter this country or not. I suspect he assumes the American people would overwhelmingly side with him, but I don’t know of one legal immigrant or American citizen who would support polices that undermine the regular immigration process.
He then returned to the diversity issue and said, “Maybe the opponents of this program don’t want diversity in the first place, a valid but not nice position.” He then said, “These hearings are never about how to improve the system, they’re about how to eliminate the system” and that this program is the best system for Africans to enter the United States. In other words, he is trying to use “white man’s guilt” to push the Republicans away from the issue instead of engaging them about security concerns and the program’s inconsistencies compared to other forms of immigration.
Ranking Member Conyers’ statement prompted Chairman Gallegly to interrupt. The Chairman said many experts agree that our country can diversify through regular migration. Mr. Conyers responded by saying, “I reject that out of hand. It isn’t happening.” Mrs. Lofgren then reiterated that most the lottery winners are managerial types without spouses and children and that “diversity has always made our country better.”
After this exchange, the witnesses presented their testimony starting with Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the bill’s sponsor. Mr. Goodlatte said the United States has the largest and most diverse immigration system regardless of the Diversity Visa Program. He said “we grant refugee status and asylum” and that “no hearings were held to improve this program in the last Congress.”
Mr. Goodlatte in one sentence took the sting out of the Democrats talking points. If the Democrats cared so much about improving this program, why then did they do nothing for 4 years? Why do they care so much now as Congress debates whether to eliminate the program, which continues to fail and undermine our immigration system?
Mr. Goodlatte then returned to the security issue where he said it was easy for Al-Qaeda to submit names and wait out the odds. He then said the program is also greatly unfair to people who meet the needs of the United States, including family connection, job skill, or humanitarian purpose. More specifically, he said, “This allows people to bypass the current system and get here based on pure luck.”
He then hit it home by stressing that his bill passed the House of Representatives in the 109th Congress and the 110th Congress, one controlled by each party.
After the other witnesses testified, Chairman Gallegly opened a round of questions. His first question about terrorism was directed at Mr. Goodlatte. Mr. Goodlatte responded by saying it is more difficult for terrorist groups to infiltrate the United States if they have to meet a job skill or family reunification status.
Chairman Gallegly directed his next question to Janice Kephart and asked her about organized crime infiltrating the Visa Lottery Program. Mrs. Kephart responded by saying it was easy to switch identities and move about the United States untraced without a job or family connection.
Ranking member Lofgren then questioned Ambassador Young and asked if he used the “Diversity Visas” as a tool for spreading the message of hope during his diplomacy. Ambassador Young responded by saying “I would get asked, particularly in Togo, ‘what could I do’ and I would direct then to sign up for the diversity visa.” He then reiterated during ranking Member Conyers’ questions that the program was an opportunity for hope.
Mr. Pierluisi began his questions by saying the Visa Lottery Program offers a caring message of diversity. He then said out of 800,000 lottery visas, there were only 4 cases of abuse mentioned, which is strained logic if not outright misleading and wrong. He said, “Let’s keep improving it, but not send a message that we are closing the door.”
Ambassador Young responded to his statement by saying that the program is “good, important, and serves its purpose.”
However, Mr. Goodlatte responded by saying,
I practiced law before this program existed and helped get LPR status for people from over 70 different countries. With our problems of security and high unemployment, we should not hand out visas based on pure luck.
Well said Mr. Goodlatte! He was the real rock star of this hearing.
I just wish the Subcommittee could have achieved the same Member turnout as last week’s H-1B visa hearing. Nevertheless, the good news is that the Subcommittee can now report its business and allow the full committee to debate and mark-up the bill.
Yes, Ambassador Young, hope is on the way.
JONATHAN OSBORNE is the Chief Legislative Analyst for NumbersUSA
Updated: Wed, Apr 6th 2011 @ 5:32pm EDT